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Chanterelle Dreams: The Secrets of One of the Most Coveted Mushrooms

There are undoubtedly many reasons why chanterelles are at the top of the mushroom heap in popularity, but chief among them is their great flavor.

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Chanterelles are found worldwide, wherever the habitat supports tree species that form mycorrhizal relationships with fungi. Various species of chanterelles and craterelles are collected and widely eaten by people on all the world's major land masses except Antarctica and Greenland. There are about forty named species in North America and around ninety species of the two genera worldwide. A more exact number would be dependent on a whole lot of learned and very opinionated taxonomists coming to agreement on what will define a distinct species within this cosmopolitan group. I, for one, will not be holding my breath waiting for consensus from a group of taxonomists.

The most prominent chanterelle in Europe and central and eastern North America is the golden chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius. Cantharellus is a name derived from the Greek kantharos, meaning goblet or drinking cup, and refers to the funnel or vase shape of the fruiting body of members of this family. The specific epithet cibarius is Latin for edible.

On the west coast of North America, the Pacific golden chanterelle, Cantharellus formosus, reigns supreme. Formerly lumped in with C. cibarius, it is now recognized as a separate species. Both are considered equally desirable and are nearly indistinguishable as they approach the sauté pan except that the Pacific variety lacks a distinct odor. When people in the United States speak informally of chanterelles, they are generally referring to one of these two species. In their comprehensive and detailed monograph on chanterelles, David Pilz et al. included a table of some eighty-nine different common names in seventeen languages used for the golden chanterelles around the world. This wide recognition is a reflection of the high regard for the edible nature of this mushroom.

In the recent survey I sent out to gather information regarding the wild mushrooms collected, eaten, and most favored, the golden chanterelle was, by far, the most preferred edible mushroom. This held true for all levels of mushrooming experience, from beginner to seasoned. I talk about mushrooming with many people who attend the walks and talks I offer. For a significant majority, the reason they give for attending is to expand the varieties of mushrooms they know and are comfortable eating. If they collect and eat only one mushroom in Maine, it is generally the chanterelle.

Description

Chanterelles have several distinct characteristics that set them apart from other similar mushrooms. The first is the vase shape to the mushroom. Unlike the traditional mushroom with a thin long stem supporting a broad hamburger bun-shaped cap, chanterelles start with a stem that is narrow at the base and immediately flares out to the rim of the cap where, in a mature body, a depressed center gives the impression of a shallow drinking cup.

There is little distinction between stem and cap as the blunted gills run down the stem. The rim of the cap is often regular and somewhat enrolled in a young mushroom and irregularly undulated or wavy in a mature cap. The second feature is the spore-bearing surface, known as the hymenium. In a “traditional” mushroom it would be composed of a series of closely arranged knife-like plates called gills. Chanterelles have what are described as rudimentary gills or blunted folds that run up the stem and then fork, often dividing into two as they climb the stem. The third area of distinction is the chante-relle color. Common names from around the world often refer to the color by comparing the mushroom to other yellow to golden-colored creatures in nature--egg yolks, chicks, or chickens. The color is not a true yellow, but a rich golden yellow, darker in older specimens or ones in greater light and paler in young and deeply shaded mushrooms. The last area of distinction is the aroma. I almost always smell a mushroom when I pick it, a habit so reflexive as to be almost unconscious. The rich apricot odor of the chanterelle amply rewards this habit; it is a smell that no other mushroom attains. The golden chanterelle typically grows to 3 inches wide, though occasionally much larger specimens are seen in ideal habitat. The height of a mature chanterelle is about one and a half times its width.

 
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